Minister of Justice and Constitutional affairs Samuel Tembenu

By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi

The Malawi government has cautioned people using online social forums including Facebook to exercise their freedom of expression responsibly as government would not just watch the abuse of the rights of others taking place in such forums.

“I am sure you will agree with me, that the emergence of social media, coupled with some people’s misunderstanding of human rights has brought with it its own challenges,” said Minister of Justice and Constitutional affairs Samuel Tembenu.

Tembenu, who was speaking at the Freedom of Expression Awards Night organised by Free Expression Institute (FEI) said it is not uncommon to see people go overboard and become blatantly irresponsible in what they say on such social networking sites as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“While the government of Malawi has no desire to curtail any person’s right to freedom of speech and expression, it does not, at the same time condone abuse of this right,” he said.

He said the government certainly did not condone freedom without responsibility.

“People should not think that their right to freedom of expression is a blank cheque that allows them to slander others or use profane or obscene language that has potential to cause unrest or civil strife,” said Tembenu.

He called on Malawians to start thinking seriously about how the human rights that everyone has can be enjoyed in a manner that does not violate rights of others.

He explained that the mission of his ministry is to promote the rule of law, justice and democracy as well as transparency and accountability and he recognises the fact that all these tenets cannot be achieved without the right to freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is extremely important in a democracy because it enables people to speak out freely, to seek access to information and to be able to hold, impart or relay opinions,” he said.

“My ministry will be willing to work with and hear from you on how people must enjoy this fundamental right in a manner that is responsible,” he added.

At the same event, Executive Secretary for the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Grace Malera called on government to do better despite registering success in other aspects.

She said in the status of Human Rights Reports that the Commission produce from time to time, it has recognised the overall progress towards the realisation of the right to freedom of expression and other attendant rights.

“This is reflected in the consistent improvement in the legal framework, the existence of a relatively free environment for the work of the media, and the efforts on the part of government through relevant ministries and departments in providing stakeholders including the media with information relating to state affairs, among other positive developments,” she explained.

Malera however, said despite all the progress, there are still glaring shortfalls.

“Malawi still has pieces of legislation that have been used against persons who merely expressed their opinions of something. One such area is the Penal Code’s provision on sedition,” she said.

The Commission, she added, has variously recommended that there is need to have such laws repealed or amended, to avoid their arbitrary application.

“In the past, the Commission has also noted a number of retrogressive developments such as arrests and harassment of journalists and threats against human rights defenders,” she said.

Malera disclosed that the Commission has also variously raised concerns with the protracted period that has characterised the process of the development and enactment of the legislation on the right to information.

“Considering the interconnectedness of the right to access information and fundamental freedom of expression, this delay in putting in place a comprehensive legal framework on the right to access to information is a very big setback in the realization of human rights,” she said.



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